Very Few People Can Keep These 12 Enlightening Facts About Medieval Monks and Friars Straight

The imposing ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a Cistercian foundation in North Yorkshire, England. English Heritage

Minsters, Abbeys, and Priories

One last piece of terminology to get sorted, and we’ll get onto the orders themselves. Unfortunately, the terms minster, abbey, and priory are more or less interchangeable in modern times, but let’s have a go at differentiating between them. A minster was a large and important church, usually with the status of a cathedral, with an origin as a monastic church (a church where monks worshipped and heard mass). Think, for example, of the gigantic York Minster in York, or Westminster in London, which both began life as a church for monks, before changing in specific usage as time passed.

An abbey is a monastery that is the seat of an abbot. Abbots were the monastic equivalent of bishops in the wider church, i.e. an important position of authority with jurisdiction over several different sites. As you might expect, the churches within an abbey were often vast and lavish, and in England are often the only thing surviving from whole complexes after Henry VIII shut them down, stole their treasure, and sold the very stones to people wanting to build large private residences. As such, it is easy to forget that abbey churches were only part of a larger site.

Priories were subsidiary to abbeys, for they were monasteries run by a prior. A prior was subservient to an abbot, and had jurisdiction only over their monastery. A prior was the equivalent of a priest in the wider church, who was answerable to a bishop, the equivalent of an abbot. Corresponding to the distinctions above for female religious orders were abbess and prioress. Our old friends, the friars, lived in places with the same names above, but these were sometimes referred to as friaries, and their female equivalents in convents – a term also used for monastic nuns. Got that?